The sports storylines that could define the Beijing Olympics for Canadians

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·5 min read
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  • John Morris
    Canadian curler
Canada's Marie-Philip Poulin celebrates her golden goal at the 2021 women's hockey world championships. Poulin and Team Canada are looking to avenge their loss to the U.S. at the 2018 Olympics in Beijing. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Canada's Marie-Philip Poulin celebrates her golden goal at the 2021 women's hockey world championships. Poulin and Team Canada are looking to avenge their loss to the U.S. at the 2018 Olympics in Beijing. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Imagine the life of an athlete preparing for the Beijing Olympics at this very moment.

The lingering threat of COVID-19 leaves open the possibility the Winter Games don't happen as planned. Meanwhile, infection could possibly prevent you from making it to Beijing — and even if you do, it's tough to predict how quickly your body will recover.

Still, it's the Olympics — a once-in-four-years opportunity to cement yourself among the all-time greats in your sport. And for many, once in a lifetime.

And so the focus must remain on the field of play. For Canada, there are plenty of storylines worth watching between Feb. 2, when competition begins, and Feb. 20.

WATCH | The sports storylines you should know for Beijing:

Here's everything you should know:

The COVID cloud still lingers. The only spectators allowed at events are domestic Chinese citizens. That means no international fans, including family and friends of myriad athletes. The pandemic already knocked NHL players out of the Olympics. All involved with the Games — athletes, coaches, support staff, and media — will be restricted to a "closed-loop system" of competition venues, training centres, living spaces and transportation. And with the Games coming quickly, there's growing concern among athletes about what a positive test could mean for participation.

Redemption is on the line in curling and women's hockey. Canada was shut out of medals in Pyeongchang in the two traditional events of men's and women's teams, though the mixed doubles tandem of John Morris and Kaitlyn Lawes won gold in that event's Olympic debut. Prior to 2018, no Canadian men's or women's rink had ever missed the podium. Past gold medallists Jennifer Jones (2014) and Brad Gushue (2006), who each won their Olympic trials in November, return for Beijing and should be unaffected by the pressure, but an early misstep or two could trigger panic faster than usual. For years, Canadians were warned that the rest of the curling world was catching up to them — now it's time to respond.

WATCH | Jones clinches spot in Beijing:

WATCH | Gushue books ticket to Olympics:

Meanwhile, the women's hockey team settled for silver in 2018 after falling in a shootout to the U.S., but plenty of players remain from the 2014 champions, including OT hero (over and over and over again) Marie-Philip Poulin, who leads a team looking to reassert its dominance following its 2021 world-championship victory.

A friend turns foe in bobsleigh. Bobsledder Kaillie Humphries won gold for Canada at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics and reached a third consecutive podium by taking bronze in 2018. But after a dispute with Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton, she left to compete for the U.S. and was recently granted citizenship. She'll now compete in red, white and blue alongside multisport athlete Lolo Jones in the two-woman event, as well as solo in the monobob, a discipline making its Olympic debut. And some of her main competition will come from former Canadian teammates Cynthia Appiah and Christine De Bruin.

WATCH | Humphries edges Appiah at World Cup in Germany:

Canada's figure skaters and speed skaters are headed in opposite directions. The figure skaters were among Canada's greatest successes in Pyeongchang, with two gold and two bronze. But after the retirement of nearly the entire team, including legendary ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Canadian program lacks star power. The best podium hope may be Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, who look to follow in Virtue and Moir's footsteps.

It's the Olympic oval where Canada could be awarded its most medals in Beijing. That's thanks to a long track speed skating team on the rise, featuring the likes of Laurent Dubreuil, who won a medal in every 500-metre race on the World Cup circuit this season, and Ted-Jan Bloemen, who took gold and silver in longer distances in Pyeongchang. The women's pursuit team, including Ivanie Blondin, Isabelle Weidemann and Valerie Maltais proved to be a force, while each member are also in contention for individual medals.

WATCH | Dubreuil notches national record on home ice:

And don't forget about the short trackers. Kim Boutin, the 2018 closing ceremony flag-bearer and three-time medallist, returns to the Olympics alongside grizzled vet Charles Hamelin and other podium hopefuls in the more chaotic version of the sport.

Plenty of gold medallists return for Canada. A couple months ago, moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury — the reigning Olympic champion — looked like the surest bet for Canadian gold in 2022. But a shaky start to the season (by his standards) including one gold, one bronze and one missed podium have chipped away at some of Kingsbury's inevitability.

After taking the first-ever mixed doubles curling gold medal alongside Morris in 2018, Lawes returns to the Olympics as a member of the Jennifer Jones rink. Jones previously took Olympic gold in 2014.

Brady Leman (2018 gold) and Marielle Thompson (2014 gold) will attempt to return to the top of the podium in the famously volatile sport of ski cross. Sébastien Toutant won snowboard big air gold in 2018, but has teammates Mark McMorris and Max Parrot breathing down his neck. Cassie Sharpe returns from injury to defend her 2018 ski halfpipe gold medal.

International stars abound. Teen sensation Chloe Kim of the U.S. is no longer a teen, but she recently made her return to snowboarding after a lengthy break and will look to defend her halfpipe gold medal. American alpine star Mikaela Shiffrin appeared in form to add to her medal collection before her recent bout of COVID-19. Ester Ledecka, the Czech breakout star who won gold in ski and snowboard events in 2018, is going for a repeat. In figure skating, the men's battle between Americans Nathan Chen and Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno should be fascinating. American John Shuster is back to defend his curling gold.

The Paralympics are also around the corner. They start in exactly two months on March 4, when Canadians like 17-time medallist Brian McKeever, eight-time medallist Mark Arendz, Pyeongchang breakout star Brittany Hudak, Para ice hockey force Billy Bridges and more look to improve on the country's 28 podium appearances from 2018.

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